As the former chair of the University’s student government Student Regent Task Force, I read with great interest The Michigan Daily’s editorial (“Students for Regents”, 11/14/12). This idea isn’t “new” or “novel” as I, along with many other members of student government, have worked on such a proposal for more than 40 years. From my time working with the Regents, I can say that the Daily’s position that the regents will voluntarily implement a de-facto student regent is pollyannaish. While attempting to work with the Board of Regents — five of the eight current regents were serving at the time of my negotiations — all of the regents opposed, in varying degrees, the idea of a student serving on the board.
After intense negotiation, the regents finally agreed to designate a chair in the room for the current president of the student body. I, along with many others at the time, considered this insulting at best. For example, at the first meeting when this position was instituted, the regents had a lengthy discussion regarding University Health Service in which none of them ever addressed the “student” representative.
The reasons provided by the regents as to why a student should not serve on the board ranged from the offensive (students could never understand nor appreciate the complexities of the issues faced by the Board of Regents) to the inane (students would never be satisfied with only one student representing them so should we have several each representing a different constituency, such as non-traditional students, commuter students, graduate and undergraduate students, etc.).
A proposal from one of the current regents actually suggested that we create a petition, signed by more than 600 students representing 15 constituencies at the University, before they would consider a single student representative of the campus community. One regent — no longer serving — did agree that a non-voting student seemed like an idea the board should at least “discuss.” When this regent mentioned the idea to University administrators, they were told it was inappropriate for regents to introduce ideas to the board for consideration — typically action items are introduced by the executive officers.
The Daily is correct that many states have student regents, but what they don’t note is that it’s not only other states, but other Michigan universities as well. Michigan State University has four student regents, as do almost all Michigan state schools. Additionally, University President Mary Sue Coleman worked with a voting student regent at the University of Iowa. After working with the regents it became clear that there was not only an unwillingness, but outright hostility to the addition of a student regent.
I don’t share the Daily’s optimism that the two new regents — one a former president of LSA Student Government — will be able to reverse the stance of the current board and administration. While it would be a vast institutional improvement for students to be involved and consulted in regards to the policies and priorities of the Board of Regents, I’m doubtful that the regents would ever cede power in this way. During the time I served working on obtaining the student body representation on the board, I determined that the only way to achieve a student on the board would be via constitutional amendment. At the time, the University’s student government conducted a statewide poll of voters and more than 80 percent of Michigan citizens also supported the idea of a voting student regent.
While I lament that the current student government has not pursued the extensive work performed by their forerunners, I believe that without constitutional reform the Board of Regents will never have the invaluable input of a student. While many other institutions have recognized the great value of a student regent, why has the University of Michigan not? If the University is truly training its students to be “leaders” why does it resist the notion that students are capable of handling the responsibilities of serving on the board? It’s time for the student body to recognize that if they truly desire representation on the Board of Regents, they will have to fight for that goal as opposed to passively standing back and waiting for the regents to “grant” them this right.
Andrew Wright is a University Alum.